Panel seeks increased gov’t spending on children

Education is always at the forefront of political discussion, and even more so in times of economic crisis.

Panelists and keynote speaker James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, addressed such issues pertaining to education in the conference “Investing in Children” in the Sanford School of Public Policy Monday afternoon. Former N.C. governor Jim Hunt was among the panelists.

State government employees, Durham government officials and Durham social service workers numbered among those present. The conference was a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke.

Heckman, Henry Schultz distinguished service professor of economics at The University of Chicago, said child success can be measured through both cognitive and non-cognitive abilities, which are often shaped by a child’s education as well as the environment in which they grow up.

“Even things that are genetically determined are moderated by the effects of the environment,” he said.

The current economic environment is focusing attention on problems with education, said moderator Marguerite Kondracke, president and chief executive officer of the America’s Promise Alliance.

“The children are clearly taking the brunt of the financial crisis,” Kondracke said in her introduction.

All three panelists addressed education through the lens of the recession. In considering ways to prioritize spending for children, the three options are to either increase deficit spending, raise revenues or reduce spending in other areas, said Lawrence Aber, board chair of New York University’s Institute for Human Development and Social Change.

Aber added that to these ends, reducing spending on the elderly, such as by increasing the retirement age, will be inevitable.

Hunt said that to gain public support for increased spending on children, it is crucial to measure students’ cognitive development.

“I would challenge you here [at Sanford to] figure out what to do,” Hunt said. “But I want every child who starts at school... to be healthy and ready to learn.”

Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families and former White House and congressional adviser on welfare issues, said a child’s most valuable resource is a pair of committed parents.

He proposed putting the majority of investments in children toward minority children. Haskins cited statistics that indicate Caucasian students make more than their parents, in contrast to black children, who tend to make less than their parents.

“[Statistically] black parents cannot even pass their well-being to their own children, despite their best attempts to do so,” Haskins said.

Heckman added that the achievement gap between Caucasian students and minorities is determined by parenting skills at least as much as it is affected by income. He also noted that although remedial programs should be improved, it is more effective to invest early in a child’s life.

“There is a lot to be learned but I think the contours are there,” Heckman concluded.


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